Joyce McMillan: Romania’s great theatrical tradition and the NTS

A trip to Romania for the Europe Theatre Prize highlights what a gem the National Theatre of Scotland has proven to be

A trip to Romania for the Europe Theatre Prize highlights what a gem the National Theatre of Scotland has proven to be

In Romania they have a National Theatre in every major city; there seems no reason not to, in a nation that has always prided itself on its great theatrical tradition. The National Theatre in Craiova, in the south-west of the country, was founded in 1860; but its current home is a big concrete communist-era building opened in 1972, a people’s palace almost identical in style to many grand British civic buildings of the same era, and as I cross the concrete piazza that surrounds it, I observe what seems to be a major Saturday-night scrum developing on the marble steps.

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The problem is that while the main theatre has close to a thousand seats, not only every international delegate to this year’s 15th edition of the Europe Theatre Prize being held in Craiova, but also every participant in Craiova’s biennial Shakespeare Festival, and every theatre student in a city of around 300,000 people, wants to spend this evening of 23 April – the exact 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death – watching Thomas Ostermeier’s acclaimed 2015 production of Richard III, created at the Schaubuhne in Berlin and due at this year’s Edinburgh Festival.

Inside the auditorium, there are young people crowded onto every step in every aisle, with a fine disregard for safety; and we settle down to watch not only Ostermeier’s thrilling take on the play – featuring a dazzling and dangerous central performance from cult German star Lars Eidinger as Richard – but also a long post-show awards ceremony. The legendary Romanian actor and director Ion Caramitrou – who famously played Hamlet in 1989 in a politically explosive production, as Ceausescu’s hated communist regime began to collapse – received a prize for services to Romanian theatre, and Ostermeier a prize for his work on Shakespeare, which he said he was deeply moved to accept on this 400th anniversary. And then, in best European style, everyone repaired to an upper foyer with a splendid balcony overlooking a ring-road flyover, to down warm white wine and canapes.

It wasn’t primarily to celebrate Ostermeier and Caramitrou, though, that a large Scottish contingent had just arrived in town; for on Tuesday evening, at the final award ceremony, the National Theatre of Scotland’s artistic director Laurie Sansom was set to join five other leading European directors in receiving one of this year’s Europe Theatre Prize New Realities awards, in recognition of the NTS’s tenth anniversary as one of the continent’s most innovative national theatres.

To mark the occasion, the Europe Theatre Prize had invited ten speakers to take part in a symposium about the company and its impact; and so on Sunday afternoon we all gathered in an upper foyer to talk to our international audience of critics and students about ten years of the NTS. There was playwright Rona Munro, designer Becky Minto, actress Gabriel Quigley, directors Graham Eatough and Wils Wilson, NTS press manager Emma Schad, critics Mark Brown and Gareth Vile, myself in the chair, and of course Laurie Sansom, still NTS director until his recently announced departure, at the end of June. And then, on Sunday evening, there was a performance of Kai Fischer’s beautiful NTS-supported audio show Last Dream (On Earth), about the refugee crisis and search for new worlds, which so wowed the international audience that it picked up three or four possible invitations to European festivals within half an hour of the end.

And as we sat in Craiova and talked about the NTS, three aspects of the event struck me above all. One was the extraordinary consensus, among that group of ten Scots, about the positive impact of the NTS on theatre in Scotland, and on the country’s cultural life in general; even when the critics unleashed the odd reservation, there was no denying the sense of the NTS’s achievements, or the continuing passion for its special “without walls” model of operation, devised by the Scottish theatre community itself back at the turn of the millennium. The second was the intense poignancy of reviewing the NTS’s work at this moment, as a hugely enthusiastic and diligent director takes his unwilling leave, for reasons that still remain unclear two weeks after the announcement.

And the third was the huge pleasure expressed by all the Scottish-based theatre artists in Craiova at this opportunity to spend a few days watching the work of artists from across the continent, and having a chance to talk to them, and to each other, in a more reflective way than usual. The Europe Theatre Prize is a big, old-style establishment event, funded by the EU in partnership with the city in which it takes place, full of rigid hierarchies and long, formal speeches, and always slightly chaotic in its efforts to assemble everyone in the right place at the right time.

Yet if the Prize is looking for exciting ways forward, in the 21st century, it could perhaps start to build on this desire of theatre artists across Europe not only to present their own work, but to see and debate what other people are doing. There are certainly dozens of younger artists in Scotland who would appreciate the chance to attend an event like the Europe Theatre Prize, and to take part in international debates there; not to replace what the Europe Theatre Prize already achieves, in celebrating the continent’s greatest theatre-makers, but to add to it, by also using this rare conjunction of their work as a gathering point for the next generation – to see, to learn, and to argue, as people did in Craiova last weekend, far into the warm and rainy Romanian night.

• Richard III will be at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from 24-28 August as part of the Edinburgh International Festival,